The five most challenging times in every relationship, and how to get through them feeling closer than ever.
Storms May Roll Your Way
It's a shock when your marriage hits its first patch of turbulence. You've been cruising along just fine, when all of a sudden, the bottom drops out. Welcome to your first big fight -- you know, the ugly kind with screaming, shouting, slamming doors, and tears. You've probably just hit a bit of nasty weather, but when you're bouncing through it, it's scary. You find yourself thinking: Is this it? Are we over?
In all likelihood, the answer is no. The truth is that all marriages go through choppy stretches. In fact, it's even possible to pinpoint when the bumps will come. Thirty years of research shows that most couples encounter conflict at predictable times.
So fasten your seat belts! We'll clue you in to the five stormiest periods, plus give you strategies to help you soar through them with your love intact.
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When the Honeymoon Is So Over
You're soul mates. You share the same interests and values, and you've lived together long enough to know each other's lovable quirks. But suddenly, you're fighting all the time about nitpicky stuff like how to load the dishwasher or whether it's possible for one person to sleep while the other's watching Monster Garage. You start to agonize over these disagreements. You wonder: Where has the love gone?
Relax! The love's right here, where it's always been. You're just experiencing the perils of the "really getting to know you" phase. Every marriage has an adjustment period that usually continues through the first few years -- and that can create little rifts from time to time. "It's amazing to me how few couples anticipate that they'll fight occasionally," says Michele Weiner-Davis, author of Divorce Busting: A Step-by-Step Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again. "As soon as disagreements arise, they assume something is horribly wrong with the relationship." Nine times out of ten, there's nothing wrong at all. Like a pair of gorgeous but blister-inducing new shoes, your marriage just needs some breaking in.
Master the art of talking and listening respectfully to each other early on, and you'll definitely thank yourselves later. "The way you manage your differences during the first few years of your marriage sets a pattern for the years ahead," says Susan Heitler, Ph.D., coauthor of The Power of Two Workbook: Communication Skills for a Strong & Loving Marriage.
So grow up. This is your spouse you're dealing with, not your little brother. When tempers start to flare, step back and figure out what the two of you are really arguing about. If you understand the deeper concerns, you'll be better able to resolve them. Avoid criticism, sarcasm, and accusatory weeping. If you can't speak without screaming, wait until your anger subsides. Then, ask your husband to sit down with you and calmly tell him what's bothering you. Try to understand how he feels too. To end the tug-of-war over who's right or wrong, ask yourself: Do I really, truly, positively need to make a big issue about (insert bone of contention here)? If not, get creative. Search for a solution that keeps you both feeling happy and respected.
When Baby's on Board
Your marriage has settled into a state of comfy domesticity. You've figured out how to share household chores, and you've found a workable balance of couple time and alone time. It's so perfect, it's almost sickening! But don't get smug just yet. Here comes your bouncing bundle of joy -- and a whole bunch of new stuff to fight about. "The birth of a child sends shock waves through most marriages," says Weiner-Davis.
Suddenly, you're living by new rules. You have to renegotiate important decisions about time, chores, money, and career goals. And that's hard to do when you're exhausted by life with a new baby. With most of your energies focused on your needy new darling, the demands of your other, older darling may suddenly seem unbearable. You're totally sleep-deprived, and you never get out of your spit-up-stained sweats. Don't be surprised if your sex drive all but disappears.
You and your sweetie have always been a hot couple, but during the crazed new-baby period, you might need to make a more conscious effort to fuel those love flames. Things don't happen as spontaneously as they used to, so it's important to carefully carve out time for each other. For starters, try setting aside at least 15 minutes every day to talk. It doesn't matter when you do it -- on your cell from the supermarket, if that's all you can manage. The critical thing is to try to connect every day. "If you don't take care of your romance, it will get buried underneath all the practicalities of raising kids," says Weiner-Davis.
As soon as your child is old enough to be left with a sitter, start "dating" each other again -- at least once a month, or more if you can swing it. It doesn't have to be dinner by candlelight -- just have fun with each other. Finally, make sex a priority. Push yourself to get naked together regularly, even if you haven't shaved your legs in a month. It's the best way to maintain intimacy, and that will help you get through this huge transition. "Remember, keeping your marriage strong is the best thing you can do for your child," says Weiner-Davis.
Just Work Your Way Through It!
When It's Pink-Slip Time
You know, of course, that layoffs are pretty common these days. But when the reality affects your family, you're thrown for a loop. "Job loss is a source of enormous stress and can really shake a marriage," says Olivia Mellan, coauthor of Money Shy to Money Sure: A Woman's Road Map to Financial Well-Being. The challenges are real: how to survive without that paycheck -- and without plunging into debt.
But there's enormous emotional fallout as well, especially if your hubby's the one who's been let go. "A man's identity is often very tied to his job, and getting laid off can cause his self-confidence to plummet," Mellan says. He might act withdrawn or angry, and you, in turn, may feel furious with him, even though you know it's not his fault. All this tension can ratchet up stress levels for everyone in the house, including the baby, the dog, and the goldfish.
Map out a concrete plan for dealing with unemployment: Work out a budget, draw up a realistic timetable for job hunting. Having a plan will make you feel more in control -- and that alone can ease some of the anxiety.
The emotional baggage that comes with losing a job is plenty heavy, so cut yourselves some slack. You're both entitled to feel crummy right now. The key is for couples to keep the lines of communication open during times of stress. Encourage your spouse to vent his feelings of frustration and anger in a safe and respectful atmosphere. Listen and sympathize, but also feel free to share your own worries. And don't forget to treat yourselves just a little, whether it's sharing a pint of Cherry Garcia or a pitcher of beer.
When Mom Starts Work
You stopped working when you first had kids and happily assumed primary responsibility for their care -- and for most of the household chores. But now you're back in the workforce, and you find yourself doing everything you've always done -- plus trying to hold down a job. Suddenly, that smartly tailored supermom uniform starts to feel very uncomfortable. Suddenly, your soul mate starts to look like a bit of a bum. "A lot of couples say this is one of the most challenging periods of their lives," says Dr. Heitler. "They have to completely renegotiate who's responsible for what, and that's difficult to do after a pattern has been set."
Just as when that first baby came along, you're going to have to rethink the household-chore chart. Find a quiet moment (remember those?) to sit down together and hash out the division-of-labor question. Do this up front instead of waiting until you're seething with resentment because he's walked right past those piles of dirty laundry or that stack of bills.
One effective approach: Make a list of all the household jobs. Pick a few duties that aren't totally hateful to you, and let your spouse do the same. Divide up the really horrible ones as fairly as possible, and consider tackling them together so you'll have a chance to talk while getting them done. Try your new plan for a month. If it's not increasing the peace at home, tweak the list until you find a balance that feels right for both of you.
When a Really Bad Thing Happens to a Really Nice Couple
A parent dies. You lose a baby. Someone gets seriously ill or injured. Any of these events has the potential to bring a couple closer, but more likely, to truly rock a relationship. "A death or a major crisis can spur people to take stock of their lives, and you may begin to question everything, including your marriage," says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
Suddenly, icky little grievances that you've tried to ignore get right in your face. Everyone handles traumatic events differently, and when the differences are great, couples can grow apart. If you haven't invested time and energy in maintaining your connection, you may find yourselves feeling like total strangers, or you may start treating each other in unfamiliar, hurtful ways.
You're going to have to reach deep to get through this one. Compassion is the word of the moment. If your spouse seems neglectful, maybe he's just busy coping. If he complains that you seem distant or uncaring, try to let him know what you need -- even if it's just the time and space to be alone. Open up to your partner about what you're feeling. Ask him how he's doing. Keep this up for the weeks, months, or even years it might take to regain your equilibrium.
But keep reminding each other that this too shall pass. Try to tap into better times: Reminisce about amazing experiences you've shared; talk about your successes big and small (he's learned that bras don't go in the dryer! You've memorized the offensive line of the Steelers!). Shared memories are like omega-3s for your marriage; there's no better way to nourish your love and make it smart, strong, and powerful enough to go the distance. Bottom line: Respect and cherish each other as much and as often as you can. Do this over the long haul, and you'll always find blue skies ahead.
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the June 2005 issue of Parents magazine.